Getting Out of Jury Duty

Why doesn't anybody want to serve?

I start looking for somebody with a little enthusiasm. There’s Art, he’s a chef at Marigold. He works six days a week, 13 hours a day. This grand enterprise we’re sharing—jury duty—is a little disruptive to that schedule. Art’s a rueful guy about 30, with a long scraggly goatee, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap that’s so old the front of the bill is separating—“An old girlfriend gave it to me, and it fits my head.” Marigold is closed today, Monday, and also Tuesdays, but sitting around in this big room in the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert waiting to get picked is eating into his food-buying and prep time, the time when he butchers meat. Art would just as soon not serve.

[SIGNUP]I move on to Michael from North Philly. “I’ll do anything,” he says when I wonder what sort of work he does. He seems lost. I ask him if he’s been a juror before: “I been coming every now and then.” Does he want to get picked? “Hard to say, you put that way. Don’t want to be.” Then: “I can’t tell you any more. That’s it.”

Edna from the Northeast, 60-something, in real estate, wonders why she has to come all this way downtown: “I could walk to Bucks County. Why don’t they put another court up there?” Besides, her grandkids are visiting from Indiana. So she’s trying to stay “in the shadows.”

Joe lives in Roxborough. He’s very tall, very thin, and though he looks post-retirement age, he still works for the city. He won’t tell me what he does. Jury duty is “a necessary evil.”

Doesn’t anybody want to get off the train of real life for a few days? Where you don’t have to do anything, except as directed. That’s kind of how serving on a jury strikes me. How about a murder trial that lasts, say, six months? Doesn’t anybody see this process as kind of … interesting?

I was on a jury 25 years ago out in North Oakland, though I was surprised to get picked, given that during selection I revealed that I was writing a novel—which I thought would make me dangerous—and had been nailed for drunk driving, which, given that this was a drunk driving trial, I thought would make me highly unappealing to one side or the other. Nope. The stunning thing was, after an hour-long trial in which the defendant said that no, she wasn’t drunk when she was pulled over by a cop, and the cop said yes, she was drunk, the 12 of us filed into the jury room, and three of my fellows, all of them old women, had absolutely no idea what had just transpired in the courtroom. Several of us who saw the afternoon beginning to head toward evening instructed them on how to vote. We nailed the defendant’s ass.

I keep searching: Marie, with straight white hair, hopes to get back to work this afternoon—she’s a city-office clerk; at least this process is a lot better than it used to be, she points out, when you’d go to City Hall every day for as long as two weeks, and sit at long tables with folding chairs. At least we get theater-type seats, and TV, and now we give just one day, or serve on one trial.

Barbara’s a woman of a certain age with carefully coifed black hair who has moved downtown from the suburbs. She spends her time volunteering, and turns philosophical when I mention the decided lack of interest I’m discovering, even though the goal of getting the hell out of here is one that she has too.

“I have to ask,” Barbara says, “if you don’t want to be here, can you be impartial? If you walk in with negative feelings, if you don’t want to be part of it, can you turn your emotions around?”

A few seats away, I approach a heavy woman dribbling the crumbs of her lunch down her front. “I don’t have no comment,” she tells me.

I mope back to my seat, but I can’t help myself—I turn to the guy behind me.

“I don’t like it,” George says. “I hate it, been in so much trouble, 45 years. I don’t want to talk.” But he goes on: “I don’t want on a jury, been to so much judges in my life, it’s a shame, have to put up with this bullshit. But no choice. Just out of jail myself. I don’t make decisions, don’t want to get locked up, been in and out of court. …. WHAT?” he wonders, his voice suddenly shooting high. “THEY CHANGE THE CHANNEL?”

The TV that’s on is a football field away, but he’s been watching. It was “The Young and the Restless,” George says.

But I find my man. An enthusiast—sort of, anyway. His name is Simir. He lives in North Philly. Simir’s a pre-med student at Penn State Abington, and has a part-time job at Staples. He came to the States from Bosnia with his family when he was six, to escape the war. Serving on a jury would disrupt his classes, and he’s headed to finals, so that wouldn’t be good. But Simir doesn’t seem particularly concerned. In fact he says that serving is a duty, “a role” to play. So there he is—my one willing, enthused citizen, out of 12, a guy from war-ravaged Eastern Europe.